If it is the task of the movie psychologist to tell his patient, à la Robin Williams, that distress is “not your fault”—and to convince us that, yes, that fellow’s problems are not his fault and, by golly, our problems are not our fault—then speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), despite lacking medical qualifications, does a bang-up job of telling stuttering George VI (Colin Firth) that it’s not his fault he is the King of England. The King’s Speech is the sort of awards-season tinsel that opens with a speaking engagement going mortifyingly awry—the youngest son of the House of Windsor, known to his few intimates as Bertie, cannot make it through a sentence without breaking down in heaving gulps—and ends with a heart-swelling proclamation of war. It is presented by the Weinstein Company, which means the movie and its royal dramatic society will be shoved down our throats for the rest of the winter. Yet that is not really the picture’s fault, is it?
As Bertie’s tongue loosened, I felt much of my hostility melting away. The film is directed by Tom Hooper, who is just about peerless at period pieces: The Damned United was spellbinding even if you didn’t care about soccer, and The King’s Speech is compelling even if you don’t give a toss about monarchs. Hooper likes difficult heroes, and it helps that Firth has always had a Little Lord Fauntleroy air of sadness in schoolboy shorts. He works a lot of notes—arrogance, shame and anger, as well as a freeing flood of expletives—into his performance, and Rush, who can be a hopeless ham, relishes the role of a doctor who can be a hopeless ham, and who is very consoling company anyway. “What are friends for?” he asks Bertie. “I wouldn’t know,” says the lonesome heir. C’mon, how are you going to resist that sort of thing?
Well, there are some objections that cannot be overcome, even as the movie shovels out the finest thespians of the Empire (and Australia): Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen Mum! Guy Pearce as abdicating Edward! Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill! The most glaring problem, first pointed out by David Edelstein, is that the king’s speech itself is the prologue to World War II, and in the broader scheme of things it’s not a triumph at all, except of rhetoric. Sure, the canard goes that people are more frightened of public speaking than death, but that doesn’t mean a good radio announcement quite balances out all that dying. R.